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The Role of Potlatch, Then and Now

Guy Debord

Potlatch #30 (15 July 1959)

Translated by Reuben Keehan

POTLATCH WAS THE NAME of the information bulletin of the Lettrist International, 29 issues of which were produced between June 1954 and November 1957. An instrument of propaganda during the transitional period from the insufficient and failed attempts of post-war avant-gardists to the organization of the cultural revolution now systematically initiated by the situationists, Potlatch was without doubt the most radical expression of its time, that is to say the most advanced search for a new culture and a new life.

Whatever fortunes our activity might have known, it was Potlatch alone that filled the void in the cultural ideas of an era — that gaping hole in the middle of the 1950's. It is already certain that history will see it not as a witness to the fidelity of the modern spirit during the reign of reactionary parody, but as a document of the experimental research that would be the central concern of the future. But this future is now — it is the game of every one of our lives. The real success that may be attributed to Potlatch is in its serving to unite the situationist movement on a new and greater field of operations.

Potlatch took its name from the North American Indian word for a pre-commercial form of circulation of goods, founded on the reciprocity of sumptuous gifts. The non-salable goods which such a free bulletin could distribute were desires and unedited problems; and it was their profundity for others that constituted a gift in return. This explains why the exchange of experience in Potlatch was often supplied as an exchange of insults, the sort of insults that we owe to those whose idea of life is inferior to our own.

Since the founding conference of the SI at Cosio d'Arroscio, Potlatch has belonged to the situationists, who broke off its publication almost immediately. However, on [Maurice] Wyckaert's suggestion, the Munich situationist conference adopted the principle of the publication of a new series of Potlatch, this time serving solely as an interior liaison among the sections of the SI. The editing and production of Potlatch has been placed under the control of the Dutch section.

The new task of Potlatch, in a different context, is as important as the old. We have moved on, and thus increased our difficulties, not to mention the chances of contributing to a completely different end than that intended. We live — as we must, the real innovators until the overthrow of all the dominant conditions of culture — with this central contradiction: we are at once a presence and a contestation in the so-called "modern" arts. We must preserve and surmount this negativity, superseding it on a superior cultural terrain. But our methods cannot be drawn from the given means of aesthetic "expression," nor from the tastes that feed on them. The SI might be a good instrument for the supersession of this laughably stagnant world; or it could congeal into an even greater obstacle: a "new style." We intend to push it as far as it will go. We intend Potlatch to work usefully toward this end.